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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Willoughby drunk or not drunk: that IS the question…Austen wanted us to struggle to answer!

The final straw that prompted me to post my reaction earlier today….  ….to Helena Kelly’s book was the dismissive review of it that John Mullan wrote, that just ran in the Guardian:

You might infer from my previous post that I’m not a fan of Kelly or her book. That’s true, but I still found unsavory the passive aggressive nastiness of Mullan’s attack on her and it. What most got under Mullan’s skin, it seems to me, was Kelly’s blithe insistence that she knew something crucial about Jane Austen (i.e., that she was a secret radical), an insight that for two centuries had eluded Mullan and all other Austen scholars ---- except, as Kelly, alas, neglected to mention, and as I outlined in my previous post, for me—but that is not my topic today.

I am writing this post about one part of Mullan’s revenge on Kelly for the crime of challenging his entrenched idea of Jane Austen. As I see it, Mullan took a page out of Deirdre Le Faye’s reactionary playbook (when she harshly and personally attacked David Nokes and his excellent 1998 Austen biography), by suggesting Kelly was a careless reader of Austenian detail, and therefore was not trustworthy on the Austen Big Picture:  
“And there’s the thing: while Kelly is making her claims about the subtexts that have evaded previous critics, Austen admirers will keep noticing little mistakes about what is going on in the novels. She says that Willoughby is drunk when he turns up at what he fears is Marianne’s deathbed in Sense and Sensibility, but in fact his “Yes, I am very drunk” is entirely sarcastic.” END QUOTE FROM MULLAN

I was intrigued, and located the passage in Kelly’s book that had prompted this correction by Mullan: “Where we hear [Willoughby’s] repentance in his own words, he is mawkish, self-indulgent; remember that he turns up at what he thinks is Marianne’s death-bed intoxicated (‘yes, I am very drunk’) and demands Elinor’s attention, as of right. There’s nothing redemptive about the scene.” END QUOTE FROM KELLY

Mullan’s confident assertion of Kelly’s error brought me up short, because I didn’t recall for sure whether Willoughby was drunk or not. So, as is my custom in such matters, I took nobody’s word as gospel, and instead went back to Austen’s text to search for an answer. So that you can have the same opportunity, before I go further, I suggest that you reread the relevant passage, and see if you can come to your own definitive answer to that question:

“…Elinor, starting back with a look of horror at the sight of him, obeyed the first impulse of her heart in turning instantly to quit the room, and her hand was already on the lock, when its action was suspended by his hastily advancing, and saying, in a voice rather of command than supplication, "Miss Dashwood, for half an hour—for ten minutes—I entreat you to stay."
"No, sir," she replied with firmness, "I shall NOT stay. Your business cannot be with ME. The servants, I suppose, forgot to tell you that Mr. Palmer was not in the house."
"Had they told me," he cried with vehemence, "that Mr. Palmer and all his relations were at the devil, it would not have turned me from the door. My business is with you, and only you."
"With me!"—in the utmost amazement—"well, sir,—be quick—and if you can—less violent."
"Sit down, and I will be both."
She hesitated; she knew not what to do. The possibility of Colonel Brandon's arriving and finding her there, came across her. But she had promised to hear him, and her curiosity no less than her honor was engaged. After a moment's recollection, therefore, concluding that prudence required dispatch, and that her acquiescence would best promote it, she walked silently towards the table, and sat down. He took the opposite chair, and for half a minute not a word was said by either.
"Pray be quick, sir,"—said Elinor, impatiently;—"I have no time to spare."
He was sitting in an attitude of deep meditation, and seemed not to hear her.
"Your sister," said he, with abruptness, a moment afterwards—"is out of danger. I heard it from the servant. God be praised!—But is it true? is it really true?"
Elinor would not speak. He repeated the inquiry with yet greater eagerness.
"For God's sake tell me, is she out of danger, or is she not?"
"We hope she is."
He rose up, and walked across the room.
"Had I known as much half an hour ago—But since I AM here,"—speaking with a forced vivacity as he returned to his seat—"what does it signify?—For once, Miss Dashwood—it will be the last time, perhaps—let us be cheerful together.—I am in a fine mood for gaiety.— Tell me honestly"—a deeper glow overspreading his cheeks—"do you think me most a knave or a fool?"
Elinor looked at him with greater astonishment than ever. She began to think that he must be in liquor;—the strangeness of such a visit, and of such manners, seemed no otherwise intelligible; and with this impression she immediately rose, saying, "Mr. Willoughby, I advise you at present to return to Combe—I am not at leisure to remain with you longer.— Whatever your business may be with me, it will be better recollected and explained to-morrow."
"I understand you," he replied, with an expressive smile, and a voice perfectly calm; "yes, I am very drunk.— A pint of porter with my cold beef at Marlborough was enough to over-set me."
"At Marlborough!"—cried Elinor, more and more at a loss to understand what he would be at.
"Yes,—I left London this morning at eight o'clock, and the only ten minutes I have spent out of my chaise since that time procured me a nuncheon at Marlborough."
The steadiness of his manner, and the intelligence of his eye as he spoke, convincing Elinor, that whatever other unpardonable folly might bring him to Cleveland, he was not brought there by intoxication, she said, after a moment's recollection, "Mr. Willoughby, you OUGHT to feel, and I certainly DO—that after what has passed—your coming here in this manner, and forcing yourself upon my notice, requires a very particular excuse.—What is it, that you mean by it?"—
"I mean,"—said he, with serious energy—"if I can, to make you hate me one degree less than you do NOW. I mean to offer some kind of explanation, some kind of apology, for the past; to open my whole heart to you, and by convincing you, that though I have been always a blockhead, I have not been always a rascal, to obtain something like forgiveness from Ma—from your sister."
"Is this the real reason of your coming?"
"Upon my soul it is,"—was his answer, with a warmth which brought all the former Willoughby to her remembrance, and in spite of herself made her think him sincere.
"If that is all, you may be satisfied already,—for Marianne DOES—she has LONG forgiven you."
"Has she?"—he cried, in the same eager tone.— "Then she has forgiven me before she ought to have done it. But she shall forgive me again, and on more reasonable grounds.—NOW will you listen to me?"
Elinor bowed her assent.
"I do not know," said he, after a pause of expectation on her side, and thoughtfulness on his own….”

So, what do you think? Was Willoughby really drunk, as Kelly opined? Or merely sarcastic about it, as Mullan claimed? For Kelly to have stated he was drunk without any qualification does have the appearance of her having only noticed Willoughby’s “I am very drunk”, without registering the narration that followed soon afterwards: “The steadiness of his manner, and the intelligence of his eye as he spoke, convincing Elinor, that whatever other unpardonable folly might bring him to Cleveland, he was not brought there by intoxication…”

So that proves Mullan is correct, right? Well….no! I believe that Mullan got so wrapped up in springing his little trap on Kelly, that he inadvertently hoist himself on his own pedagogical petard. Let me show you how. First, please read that narration again, but this time ask yourself a different question--- is the statement that Willoughby “was not brought there by intoxication” an objective fact that an omniscient narrator is telling us, such that we can be sure it is correct? That seems to be Mullan’s interpretation. Or is it a subjective opinion of Elinor’s, and therefore open to the reader’s own analysis of the facts presented in this passage?

I think it’s clear that “She began to think that he must be in liquor” and “…convincing Elinor…he was not brought there by intoxication” are both Elinor’s opinions, and are not objective facts. In your rereading, did you pick up on all the subtle clues that JA provided in her description of Willoughby’s behavior and in the words he speaks? Were you able to come to a definitive conclusion as to whether he’s really drunk, or only being sarcastic about it? Mullan confidently states that Willoughby was being sarcastic, but he gives no basis for this inference, he believes it's obvious. And yet, it appears that the evidence which convinces Mullan of this is Elinor's suddenly being convinced that he wasn't drunk---he's on no firmer ground than Kelly!

I sure wasn’t convinced either way. And so I believe therefore that there is a third possibility—i.e., that Kelly and Mullan are BOTH wrong, because this passage, it seems to me, was carefully and deliberately written by Jane Austen to be completely ambiguous as to whether Willoughby is actually drunk! And why, you may ask, would Austen be so uncooperative as to deliberately create such an ambiguity? Because, among several good reasons that come to mind, that ambiguity allows the novel to provide to the reader a kind of verisimilitude to real life experience. I.e., none of us has the benefit of an omniscient narrator perched on our shoulder, telling us The Truth – we have to work from the impressions we derive with our senses and our minds, and struggle to make sense of what is going on around us, especially when it comes to interpreting the feelings and actions of other people!

And so, I believe you will find, if you go through that passage, you will find all sorts of interesting data about what is going on with Willoughby during his lengthy conversation with Elinor (is there a longer conversation between two characters, especially in the sheer number of responses back and forth, in any of JA’s novels?), but I for one do not find any of it determinative. It seems to me to be equally plausible that Willoughby is very drunk, highly worked up after a very long strenuous horseback ride, highly worked up about the possibility of Marianne being mortally ill, or some combination of the three. We cannot know for sure, because all of our data is filtered through Elinor’s mind and heart, and that is NOT a reliable source, especially given that Elinor has probably herself partaken of some more of Mrs. Jennings’s potent Constantia wine, and that Elinor is half-crazy with worry about Marianne, and frantically missing her mother as well. 

How ironic that both Mullan and Kelly are both wrong, because they are both certain about something no reader is justified in being certain about. And that leads me to the ultimate irony of Mullan’s final slam at Kelly:   “Here is [Austen’s] true radicalism: not in her opinions – most of which are unknowable – but in the sheer audacity of her fictional technique.” To which I respond, Metaphysician Mullan, heal thyself, because you lecture Ms. Kelly about her having failed to appreciate “the sheer audacity of [Austen’s] fictional technique”, when you yourself have failed to appreciate what I think is the most audacious aspect of Jane Austen’s fictional technique—her radical commitment to creating an ambiguous, and therefore lifelike, fictional reading experience, so that readers who realize this will be more likely to resist the urge to leap to overhasty conclusions about the outside world…and ourselves. 

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Neil Wallace said...

A pedant writes ..... Willoughby was highly worked up "after a long strenuous horseback ride " should read "after a long strenuous drive in a chaise, probably a two wheel, single horse, one person chaise".

Another pedant writes .... Willoughby was highly worked up after a long strenuous drive in a chaise. Clearly a post-chaise! "The post-chaise was a fast carriage for traveling post in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It usually had a closed body on four wheels, sat two to four persons, and was drawn by two or four horses. The driver, especially when there was no coachman, rode postillion on the near horse of a pair or of one of the pairs attached to the post-chaise." Willougby did indeed have a long strenuous horseback ride - as driver and postillion.

Yet another pedant writes .... However he got there, Wiloughby would have been highly worked up after many hours (left London at 0800, Marlborough 12 ish, arrived 4 ish?) spent either driving a chaise; or clinging on to the chaise's rear horse as postillion, or , from my point of view the nightmare of being passively crammed into the chaise with my thoughts and fears with two or three strangers.

Highly worked up , yes.
Three sheets to the wind, no.